In 2024, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers discusses her curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy. And I am here today with the Guest Editor for February, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Honorée is the author of The Age of Phillis and the wonderful novel The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois. Honorée, welcome, and thank you for joining me.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: Thank you for having me.
Poets.org: Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for February, Black History Month?
Fanonne Jeffers: My first consideration was excellence. I just wanted to pick what I thought were great poems. But honestly, I wanted to highlight aesthetic accessibility too. I know that contemporary American poetry in the U.S. leans toward poems that are harder to comprehend, and I do love an aesthetically difficult poem; but, at this point in my life, I want to open literature to people who aren’t in my small world of poets only for poets. And finally, I was chosen to curate the month of February, and that’s Black History Month here in the U.S. So all the poets I chose were of Africana heritage, regardless of their national origins. Black History Month is my favorite month of the year. I have nicknamed it “Afropalooza” because it’s an intellectual and cultural party for me.
Poets.org: [laughs] That sounds wonderful. I’m really interested in what you said about poetry, how esoteric and insular it can sometimes seem. The more people are reading poetry these days, there is still this sense that poetry is something that you have to read in school, right? That poetry is something mysterious and difficult. So could you tell us a bit more about how you’ve tried to make poetry more accessible in your writing and teaching?
Fanonne Jeffers: Well, I think that one of the things that always becomes very clear to me every semester that I do teach is the students are very excited about fiction, but only a very few are very excited about poetry. They look at poetry as something that they have to strain and labor to understand, or they just feel like they can vomit anything out on the page, and it’s supposed to be okay because it’s for them. As an African American who comes from a tradition of historically Black college, both my parents taught at historically Black colleges, my mother is also a graduate or was also a graduate of a historically Black college, I came up in a tradition that the world that literature is supposed to be for everyone. And I think that has to do with the history of literacy being denied to African Americans for so long under the law in the American South. And so literacy is very much pushed. Literature is very much pushed. So, I wanted to gather a range of poems, but I wanted to really focus on poems that regular people could read and enjoy.
Poets.org: Wonderful. In that vein, if you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Fanonne Jeffers: I choose “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” by Helene Johnson, who is a lesser-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance. And this is one of my favorite poems. I just love this poem because not many folks even now understand that African American poets can write wonderfully in meter. I think it would be a great poem to include in a new, racially diverse anthology on the sonnet (hint, hint) [laughs] and a great poem to teach. When I read the poem, I have such a vivid image of the Black man that Johnson writes about: “I love your laughter arrogant and bold.” And I’ve often wondered, was this a stranger to Johnson? Was this a lover of Johnson? Who was this brother? So many questions arise, and I see new things every time I approach this poem.
Poets.org: And who are you reading right now?
Fanonne Jeffers: I’ve been reading some non-U.S. poets lately to escape my own provinciality. I can return to poets that I’ve always read. You know, I can have my own little insular, a group of poets who adhere to how I like a poem written and so on and so forth. And every now and then, probably once every eighteen months to twenty-four months, I will say, “Honorée, it is time to get out of this and explore a bit.” Because I feel like if I want people to read me, I need to be reading. So right now, I’m intend on finding work by Palestinian poets such as... And I probably am not going to be pronouncing this well, Rasha Abdulhadi and Mosab Abu Toha. And I’m struck that what I’ve called the communal lyric, I’ve written about this before in African American poetry, is used to great effect by these two poets whom I’ve encountered.
And of course, I don’t say “discovered” because these poets have been there before I started reading them. As I have written about, a communal lyric in African American poetry, powerfully utilizes a first-person speaker who represents a broader community, and usually, they will talk about something of difficulty in history or in society, so forth. And when I started reading work by these poets, I really recognized how much I needed to reach outside of my own experience. And I’m not someone who asks or expects a universal reading experience. I really don’t think that even exists inside of a particular culture. But I will say that when I see a thematic or aesthetic connection between my own African community, African American rather, community, and other global communities, like with these wonderful Palestinian poets, it’s a really a beautiful, intense experience.
Poets.org: Speaking of connections between the African American community and certain global communities, what I most appreciate about your work is the way in which you connect history to the present, reminding people of the ways in which we continue to live history. Right? In The Age of Phillis, if we may [laughs], you juxtapose scenes from the Middle Passage with two found poems about children and how they were treated by border patrol agents in detention centers during the Trump administration. Could you tell us more about your choice to make that connection in the book?
Fanonne Jeffers: Oh, wow. I was really at the end of writing The Age of Phillis, which if you’ve read the book, you know that it took me fifteen years, really over fifteen years, because I was doing things furiously right at the end in the sixteenth year, right before it was going into production. And these children at the border, they haunted me. I think a lot about children, probably because, as a child, I didn’t have much safety. And so many times, I hope I don’t get choked up talking about this, when I will see little children, people will post baby pictures and different things like that, and I will whisper to the screen, they’ll post on social media, “May you always be blessed. May you always have safety. May you always be happy.” Because I didn’t have safety, and I didn’t have happiness as a child. I do now, and I’m just deeply grateful for that. And so I think about those children. Not many people talk about them anymore at the border, but they’re still there. Many of them are still there. The majority of them are still separated from their families.
And so when I was thinking about the child who would be renamed Phillis Wheatley, who is now known as Phillis Wheatley Peters, I really campaigned for over a decade that we would call her by at least a bit of the name that she chose for herself. She was known as Phillis Peters after her marriage to John Peters. But the compromise I made was to call her Phillis Wheatley Peters. I thought of this little girl who, her master, her former master, John Wheatley, said she was between seven and eight years old. And I thought, how terrifying to be separated from the only people that you have ever known. To be separated from your community, your family, your parents. What was greatly distressing to me is that in so much of the scholarship, people seem to act like, oh, okay. Well, she had this white lady, Susanna Wheatley, so....Who cares about the Africans? And I thought about that, and I thought about those little kids from Central America and from along that border who had been separated from their parents. And I said, well, I’m not somebody who marches. I’m not somebody who goes out and protests. I’m a coward that way, but I can say something on the page so that this will be known as long as this book is in print. And so that’s why I did that.
Poets.org: And what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Fanonne Jeffers: I’m a college professor and I’ve taught... I’m laughing because many times is a thankless job, especially now, in the state of Oklahoma where I teach, they have eliminated diversity and inclusion, equity and inclusion programs. So to be a Black college professor is to really be in the badlands, but, you know, somebody got to do it, and I was chosen to do it. So I’ve taught poetry workshops for quite some time. Now that I’m a published novelist, I teach fiction as well. And I’m always looking for new ways to talk about craft with my students. Young writers are very demanding, and they really keep you on your toes. And I always try to lead with a lot of love. It doesn’t matter what the racial background is, the cultural background. Young folks need a lot of love. And young writers, I think, need even more.
So, I’m currently working on making sure that I bring as much love as I can into the classroom along with as much intellectual and artistic engagement in the classroom. Aside from teaching, which is my first job, I’m finishing up, if God says the same, I’m a faithful person so…a collection of essays about Black feminist, ancestral, and literary lineages titled “Misbehaving at the Crossroads.” And that the whole thing about the lineages seems really stuffy, but I’m hoping to bring, as they say, put a little stank on that. And I’m writing from the point of view of a daughter of Eatonton, Georgia, which my mother is from Eatonton, Georgia; Alice Walker is from Eatonton, Georgia, the great novelist and poet and essayist. My mother taught Alice Walker. And so, I’m really interested in what does it mean to be a Black feminist from this deep Southern space. And then after that, I’m continuing to conduct research for my in-progress biography of the great poet Lucille Clifton, who was my second mother. And I’m real busy these days, but I’m grateful that people are still interested in my work.
Poets.org: I’m very interested in these upcoming works. I cannot wait to read these books, especially that biography of Lucille Clifton, and I’m sure that others in our audience feel the same. Thank you so much, Honorée, for this time.
Fanonne Jeffers: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you.